Chef Rick Moonen on
Why Buying Sustainable Seafood Matters
by Sandra Murphy
An early promoter of sustainable fishing, celebrity chef Rick Moonen is the owner of both RM Seafood and Rx Boiler Room, in Las Vegas, and brand promoter for True North Seafood. His cookbook, Fish Without a Doubt: The Cook’s Essential Companion, features only seafood that hasn’t been overfished. He was named Chef of the Year in 2011 by the Monterey Bay Aquarium, which publishes an up-to-date Seafood Watch guide to sustainable species (SeafoodWatch.org).
Moonen’s latest project is promoting non-BPA canned seafood to reduce waste, encourage everyone to eat lower on the food chain and give popular fish a chance to rebound.
Do healthy food trends start with chefs or customers asking for more nutritious dishes?
Both. Chefs are inherently curious. When a new food is available, they’re challenged to see how it can be used. Customers spread the word via social media. Travel broadens our palate. Trying something new is supercool.
Like the wreckfish, some species have unfortunate names. Smart marketing can persuade a consumer to try something unfamiliar.
Can we counteract the additional carbon footprint of shipping seafood inland?
Eat as local as possible, whenever possible. Typically, U.S. seafood is sustainable seafood. Choose freshwater fish. Seafood is the most perishable ingredient in the kitchen. It’s caught, cleaned, chilled and transported with a short expiration date. Chefs stay with the tried and true because it’s wasted if customers hesitate to order a dish. In a few years, we’ll be eating more seaweed.
We are literally loving some species to death. Bluefin tuna will likely become extinct during our lifetime due to our love affair with sushi. We should all rotate the types of fish on our plate, beyond tuna, tilapia and salmon. Good choices include halibut, mahi mahi, Arctic char, black cod and rockfish.
Refer to the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch app for where fish are caught and how, if it’s sustainable or to be avoided. Sustainable means it’s fished or farmed with minimal impact on ocean health and will more likely remain available for the future. Half the seafood consumed today is farmed, according to program researchers.
Consider canned fish in BPA-free containers to better diversify an ocean-sourced diet. There’s no waste because it doesn’t rely on seasonal availability, tastes good and is sustainable. With creative recipes and fun garnishes, simple food can be as much of an experience as fine dining.
How can we avoid trashing the ocean and polluting our seafood?
People once thought the ocean was big enough to absorb anything dumped into it and it could replenish anything taken out. Toxic oil spills get publicity, but runoff from agricultural businesses is just as bad. The ocean can’t be used like a toilet. Be a steward of the environment and personalize the message through social media.
Is fish farming a good alternative for salmon and other species?
Fish farming has many components. Mistakes were made as people learned best practices during the past 20 years. Early instant demand called for rapid growth, causing overcrowded conditions, stressed fish and use of antibiotics and genetically modified ingredients in the fish food. Aquaculture shouldn’t be demonized anymore.
It took a while, but the better companies made changes and continue to refine improvements. They deserve our support. Wild fish are being contaminated by debris and plastic in the water, so farming is a good alternative.
What gives you hope?
Influencers are joining the choir of sustainability that I’ve preached for 30 years. Now I’m the Trojan Chef, sitting in on meetings with major suppliers and acting as spokesperson for True North.
We need to remember a species doesn’t live alone. Fish produce feces. Mussels love the yucky muck and they’re a great way to clean the water. Symbiotic species work with nature, eliminating the need for manmade chemicals.
What can individuals do?
When we’re grocery shopping or eating out, we’re voting with our dollars. Ask, “What kind of fish is this? Where was it caught and how? Is it farmed or wild?” Serving as informed voices not only secures answers, it makes people aware of necessary preferences.
Sharing the message can be fun as anxiety melts over tasting the unfamiliar. Host a Chopped or Iron Chef-style competition at home or with a neighbor. When my youngest son was little, there were things he wouldn’t eat out of hand, so I had him help me in the kitchen. Once he was invested in meals, he tasted new dishes. Experimenting can be exciting.
Connect with freelance writer Sandra Murphy at StLouisFreelanceWriter@mindspring.com.